Joe Satriani has always been an odd sort of guitar virtuoso. Too flashy to ever play sideman, too song-oriented to just wail away in some fusion project, and too weak-lunged to sing with any kind of Clapton-like proficiency, he tries to make catchy instrumental music that people who aren't guitar dorks might listen to but that doesn't sound too much like the rock-musicesque sounds in the background of a Pontiac commercial. On 1987's Surfing with the Alien, he hit the right mix and scored about the closest thing to a pop hit any guitar instrumentalist has come up with since Duane Eddy. At his best, Satriani writes and plays unfussy boogie platforms so freighted with hooks that you barely notice that the vocals never come in. At worst, well, it's Pontiac Excitement time.
Joe's fiddled with his formula considerably in pursuit of more hits A he even tries singing now and then. This self-titled effort edges him closer to a sort of updated Jeff Beck Group idea, sans vocals. Former Who producer Glyn Johns supplies a grittier, bluesier, less effects-laden sound, and a bona fide band (with talented Peter Gabriel sideman Manu Katche on drums and British vet Andy Fairweather Low on rhythm guitar) supplies some semblance of group chemistry amid Satriani's bouts of weedly-weedly-wee. Joe can throw together blueslike sounds as well an anyone; and while "Cool #9" and the lengthy "Slow Down Blues" aren't about to make Son Seals lose any sleep, they're pleasant enough displays of Satriani's impeccable tone and melodic instincts. Elsewhere, "Killer Bee Bop" is a loony piece of juiced fret pyrotechnics, and "Moroccan Sunset" offers a vaguely Middle Eastern vamp. The best noises, however, happen when he falls back on his old strengths -- stringing familiar-sounding riffs into head-bobbing rock throwaways, as on the Zeppelinesque "If" and the bottom-heavy "Luminous Flesh Giants."
By David Dudley
The John Doe Thing
Kissing So Hard
The Mother Hips
Part Timers Go Full
A fool and his preconceptions are soon parted. (The fool, as you might expect, being me.) I received these two albums the same week, and without so much as opening them I was all set to drool over the Mother Hips, having taken a shine to their previous album, and to trash John Doe, who I vaguely recalled as an exile from the never-quite-as-cool-as-they-thought-they-were L.A. punk band X.
Wrong. Very wrong.
John Doe's second solo project is a bracing achievement, a record flush with juicy riffs, sly arrangements, and distinguished songwriting. From the melodic fuzz of "Fallen Tears" to the bluesy grind of "Safety," Doe and his talented backing cast create a sonic landscape that brings his themes of emotional and cultural dislocation alive. Gibsons blaze, notes quiver, drums throb, and Doe's wailing tenor -- not pretty, but plaintive -- floats precariously atop the dark ambiance.
His ballads are at once haunting and tender. "Williamette" tells the tale of a fatherless kid living in a town with as many "broken sidewalks" as broken dreams. "Field of Dirt" weds the twang of country with a mournful string section, the end result sounding something like an updated version of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles."
Fortunately, Doe leavens the mix with moments of playful punk excess. "Love Knows," for instance, sounds like the Peter Gunn theme melted down and cast into something more ornery than foreboding. "Beer, Gas, Ride Forever" is an ironic paean to the joys of trash culture, alive with guitars that buzz like chain saws and roar like stock cars.
Doe's ability to build sophisticated songs around relatively simple hooks is a talent the Mother Hips seem to have forgotten (or disregarded). This Northern California quartet's 1993 release, Back to the Grotto, hinted at greatness: muscular roots rock served up in deceptively complex arrangements; confident musicianship; delectable harmonies. The Grateful Dead, in other words, with more vigor and less spaced-out pretension.
There are moments of similar brilliance on Part Timers (the raging "Stoned On Up the Road" leaps to mind), but not many. Instead the band appears determined to go the route of so many other Dead wanna-be's, losing the thread of strong melodies in technically proficient but ultimately tiresome jams, changing directions so many times within one composition that all momentum is lost. What you end up with is a gimmicky sound that flies in the face of the down-home image the boys obviously want to project. And the lyrics, I'm sorry to report, are just as dippy and diffuse as the songs' infrastructures.
With Jerry Garcia dead and gone, the Mother Hips might have a built-in market, nibbling at the rootsy end of the Deadhead spectrum while Phish works the jazz end. I certainly won't be investing in another one of their records without giving it a good listen first. Nor, for that matter, will I be jumping to any nasty conclusions about John Doe's next project.
By Steven Almond
The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five
Some look into the face of American popular culture and see the deep dark abyss of lowest-common-denominator commercialism; the Tokyo duo Pizzicato Five, however, peers stateside and sees the sparkling disco-ball inferno of souped-up, drag-race hyperenthusiasm; a kitschy, retro-futurist youthquake; and a high-fashion, heavy-plastic glob of fun. P5 is the ultimate in fabulousness and prefabrication, their music one grand wink that tickles us indulgently silly -- like a soundtrack to Lifestyles of the Hip and Groovy. They are hair hoppers, lounge lizards, club kids, and space cadets in one exquisite package, on sale everywhere and available all night long.
Like last year's U.S. debut, Made in USA, the new The Sound of Music highlights songs taken from the group's releases in Japan (over two dozen since 1985's "Audrey Hepburn Complex"), where P5 are superstars. Again, the ever-changing group masterminded by Warhol-wanna-be Yasuharu Konishi and fronted by Twiggy-disciple Maki Nomiya has borrowed, sampled, and stolen its way through an irresistible melange of Esquivel's bossa nova cocktail swing ("Rock N' Roll"), Bacharach's jazz pop ("Fortune Cookie"), chewy psychedelic bubble-gum ("Strawberry Sleighride"), cartoonish Jackson Five Motown ("Happy Sad"), and Deee-Lite's frenetic disco house music ("The Night Is Still Young"). While Maki sings a mix of Japanese and English, the only language that makes sense in P5's Sound of Music menagerie can be heard in the expressive ba-ba-bah's and ti-ti-tika-ti's that occasionally burst forth. It is, though, a code only the beautiful people understand.
By Roni Sarig
Live My Way
No surprise that Mark Arm's side project Bloodloss should display as much A or even more A Stooges influence than does his day-job outfit Mudhoney. While Arm sings only two of the twelve tracks on Live My Way, his guitar does wield plenty of power over the band's meld of Iggy-ish rage, Beefheartian wisdom, and Tom Waits-style existential disgust. Saxman Renestair EJ offers an inspirational rant about Woodstock '94 on "Face Down in Mud" ("the festival's just been sold"), as well as a bit of punkish dozens playing on "(All I Get Is Your) Dissatisfaction." And drummer and occasional guitarist Martin Bland takes a deranged lounge-act point of view on "Frank's Wig," the kind of joke you wouldn't want to tell in Sinatra's neighborhood. While Live My Way is a bit less direct than Mudhoney's recent My Brother the Cow (punk record of the year, I say), it's still a skewed gem that the Seattle Chamber of Commerce should be proud of.
By Rickey Wright
Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band
Reincarnation of a Love Bird
Although it's been 50-some years since its invention, bebop remains one of the most challenging forms of jazz. Drummer Paul Motian and his excellent septet manage to reinvigorate bop while paying homage to its progenitors on the aptly titled Reincarnation of a Love Bird.
Using bop as its touchstone, the seven-piece nonetheless sounds extremely contemporary, perhaps attributable to the inclusion of electric guitar, which is played with modern sensibilities and featured as prominently here as the tenor and alto saxophones (Kurt Rosenwinkel and Wolfgang Muthspiel dexterously handle the former, Chris Potter and Chris Creek perform ably on the latter). Bebop was as much a rhythmic as harmonic revolution -- its name derived onomatopoeically from the sound of the drums -- and the steadfast grooves laid down by Motian, percussionist Don Alias, and bassist Steve Swallow display a sublime mastery of the form. Alias and Swallow proffer a light touch, while Motian expertly drives the songs with plenty of vigorous rolls and splashy hi-hat.
The songs -- Miles Davis's "Half-Nelson," Dizzy Gillespie's "2 Bass Hit," and Charlie Parker's "Ornithology" -- are immediately familiar to jazz lovers, but they're far from regurgitations of the originals. Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus are also represented with outstanding renditions of the spiky "Skippy" and the bluesy title track, respectively.
The spirit of high-wire creativity, cool mystery mixed with fiery musicianship, is as central to this project as it was to bop's pioneers. Reincarnation may look back for inspiration, but it sounds as fresh and creative as the original masters at the top of their form.
By Bob Weinberg
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Riding on the success of his multiplatinum single "Gangsta's Paradise" (it appears on the soundtrack of the Michelle Pfeiffer drive-by movie Dangerous Minds), Coolio plays the teach-and-preach Jesse Jackson of the street-gang set here, as he reflects thoughtfully on his violent surroundings instead of helping to perpetuate them. Utilizing hooks and riffs from the likes of Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson, Gangsta's messages range from man-on-the-street commentaries (the upbeat "Geto Highlights") to proud parentisms (the family-stonin' "Smilin'," which lifts its one-line chorus of "people let me tell you 'bout my best friend" from Harry Nilsson's "Best Friend," the theme song of the old TV show The Courtship of Eddie's Father).
However, Coolio's rap style lacks the distinctiveness of his words on cuts such as "A Thing Going On," as he talks about not getting caught with another lover A "holding hands, a smile, the glance, a kiss, and dance but we can't take a chance" A while cadging snippets of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" for musical accompaniment. And on his stylish retooling of Kool and the Gang's 1980 love jam "Too Hot," Coolio is backed up by the Gang itself as he delivers a funked-up sermon on safe sex, exhorting "put a condom in their hand and hope it don't bust." With some flavorful grooves and a slick production pit crew (DJ Wino, Ram Kass, and E-40, among others), Coolio puts a positive spin on his Paradise, making the ghetto seem a lot less bleak.
By George Pelletier